A Plea for Eros Essays

Siri Hustvedt




Trade Paperback

240 Pages



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Whether her subject is growing up in Minnesota, cross-dressing, or the novel, Hustvedt's nonfiction, like her fiction, defies easy categorization, combining intellect, emotion, wit, and passion. She undresses the cultural prejudices that veil both literature and life and explores the multiple personalities that inevitably inhabit a writer's mind. Is it possible for a woman in the twentieth century to endorse the corset, and at the same time approach with authority what it is like to be a man? Hustvedt does. Writing with rigorous honesty about her own divided self, and how this has shaped her as a writer, she also approaches the works of others—Fitzgerald, Dickens, and Henry James—with revelatory insight, and a practitioner's understanding of their art.


Praise for A Plea for Eros

"Writer and art critic Siri Hustvedt's impressive third novel, What I Loved, established her as one of the most talented voices in contemporary fiction. Rich in passion and ideas, the novel brings to life characters of extraordinary depth and humanity and conjures up paintings and art installations so vividly that one can almost touch them. Hustvedt brings the same visual power, sensuality and intelligence to her collection of essays A Plea for Eros. Written over a decade (1995-2005), these lively personal and literary pieces cover a dizzying range of subjects—autobiography, sexuality, wearing a corset, Sept. 11, the actor Franklin Pangborn, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Dickens. What unifies and makes this collection so compelling is the way in which Hustvedt weaves evocative memories and stories with her intellectual meditations. In the book's finest piece, 'Yonder,' she lovingly re-creates the three places in her life: Minnesota, where she was born and rebelled against a culture of conformity; Norway, her mother's and paternal grandparents' native country, where she spent three happy years; and New York, which she embraced when she moved there in 1978 to go to graduate school at Columbia and where she now lives with her husband, the writer Paul Auster. Her recollections bloom into reflections on how places live in our minds or are imagined to illustrate a story, and on the nature of memory and the imagination. The imagination and fiction, she muses, are a kind of memory or 'remembering what never happened.' Her observation that we use 'I see' for 'I understand' because we create pictures to understand the world also describes the theory behind her writing and what makes her prose so alive: She distills an idea from an image or illuminates her concepts with stories . . . Hustvedt is not afraid to express her deep love for her family or share her vulnerabilities. In the autobiographical 'Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self,' we learn that she was frail at birth, that she suffers from severe migraine headaches and that she carries inside her 'a sensation of being wounded.' Writing for her is 'an answer to the wounded self,' and by the end of A Plea for Eros, we have been charmed by her lucid prose and vibrant ideas and feel as if we know her intimately."—Lelia Ruckenstein, Los Angeles Times
"Memory glides like a stream—sometimes wide, sometimes narrow—through this collection of Siri Hustvedt's essays . . . The memoir-like aspects of these essays are part of their strength . . . This is a beautifully written collection . . . the kind of writing that is genuinely pleasurable, satisfying. Hustvedt is smart, intensely aware and observant—an elegant, graceful writer who makes the essay form shine."—L. K. Hanson, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"The essays in A Plea for Eros cover vast critical and autobiographical territory with grace. Hustvedt offers tender but unsentimental ruminations on Minnesota and Norway, the twin poles of her childhood, in the opener, 'Yonder.' From there she moves on to moneyed New York while also tackling Fitzgerald's use of narrative perspective in 'Gatsby’s Glasses.' In the title essay she makes her case for the importance of mystery and ambiguity in relationships while dismantling what she sees as feminism's ‘imposed blindness to erotic truth.'"—The Village Voice
"Engaging collection of literary and personal essays, most previously published, from novelist Hustvedt. The author's single most impressive skill, evident in all the best pieces here, is the way she uses autobiography to illuminate more general points. In 'Yonder,' which opens the volume, Hustvedt illustrates the importance of place in our imaginative lives with examples from her experiences as a Midwestern girl who spent considerable time in Norway (her mother's native country) and who has now lived in New York for 27 years. The tender, wickedly funny 'Living with Strangers' and the moving '9/11, or One Year Later' pay tribute to her adopted home by recalling some of the personal encounters that have shaped her delight in 'the city of immigrants, of pluralism, and of tolerance.' The latter essay will strike a particular chord with all New Yorkers, as it evokes the intimate nature of their confrontation with the World Trade Center tragedy: 'For weeks afterward, the first question we asked friends and neighbors . . . was: "Is your family all right? Did you lose anybody?"' She also draws on her life to buttress her argument in 'A Plea for Eros' that 'to pretend that ambiguity doesn't exist in sexual relations is just plain stupid.' Hustvedt's use of autobiographical material is so delicate and judicious that it never seems self-aggrandizing; it works just as well in literary essays like 'Gatsby's Glasses' or 'Charles Dickens and the Morbid Fragment' as in the more journalistic entries. Her prose is elegant yet down-to-earth, in keeping with the democratic sympathies and substantive intellectual interests she displays throughout. Though the collection spans a decade (1995-2005), it is unified by the author's voice: so direct and appealing that many readers will hope to one day bump into Hustvedt on the sidewalks of the Brooklyn neighborhood she lovingly describes in several pieces. As accomplished and intelligent as the author's fiction—which is saying a lot."—Kirkus Reviews
"This polished collection of 12 autobiographical and critical essays reveals the many voices of Hustvedt, who was raised in Minnesota and now lives in New York, where she witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks—both covered here . . . [her] personal tales of being a sister and a mother . . . are most insightful, revealing her intuition and empathy. In 'Leaving Your Mother,' she ties visiting her daughter at camp with a childhood train trip to visit relatives in Chicago. 'Living with Strangers' evokes the pretend-it-isn't-happening law that applies to odd and interesting sites one encounters living in New York—or anywhere else, for that matter. The title essay explores the biology, personal history, and cultural miasma of attraction. An excellent selection."—Library Journal
"The title essay of Hustvedt's collection gets at the heart of what is best about these writings: it's a plea not just for the mysteries of sexual longing but for sensual engagement with life. Themes of memory, defining the self, attachment to place and family, violence and detachment wind through the essays. Novelist Hustvedt is most interesting when she starts with her body rather than her head—but since even her memories have a physicality that gives them substance, this allows her great scope. Her clear, elegant writing is particularly effective in the opening essay, which movingly evokes a variety of formative experiences, including the echoes of Norway in her family. Her reflections on how we attach images to narrative, on the first anniversary of 9/11, on the onset of migraines likewise open up personal experience with thoughtful insight . . . readers will find both emotional and intellectual resonance in Hustvedt's deeply personal essays."—Publishers Weekly

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My father once asked me if I knew where yonder was. I said I thought yonder was another word for there. He smiled and said, "No, yonder is between here and there." This little story has stayed with me for years as an example of linguistic magic: It identified a new space---a middle region that was neither here nor there---a place that simply didn't exist for me until it was given a name. During my father's brief explanation of the meaning of yonder, and every time I've thought of it since, a landscape appears in my mind: I am standing at the crest of a small hill looking
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  • Siri Hustvedt

  • Siri Hustvedt’s essays on art, Mysteries of the Rectangle, are available from Princeton University Press. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Paul Auster.
  • Siri Hustvedt Marion Ettlinger
    Siri Hustvedt